Pacific Gas and Electric power lines were the cause of the Cascade fire in Yuba County last year, one of many fires that came to be known collectively as the “October 2018 Fire Siege”. That’s according to an investigation report released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection. However, unlike some of the other fires where PG&E was implicated, the cause was not the result of a failure to follow laws regarding utility line maintenance and operations.
According to a Cal Fire press release, the problem was unusually high winds hitting what appeared to be properly built and maintained electric lines…
A high wind event in conjunction with the power line sag on two conductors caused the lines to come into contact, which created an electrical arc. The electrical arc deposited hot burning or molten material onto the ground in a receptive fuel bed causing the fire. The common term for this situation is called “line slap” and the power line in question was owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
As a matter of routine practice, Cal Fire forwarded the report to the Yuba County district attorney, but according to the Los Angeles Times, “Yuba County prosecutors said Tuesday they would not press charges against the company”. That’s in contrast to three fires in Butte and Nevada counties around the same time, where Cal Fire said that PG&E violated the law and the district attorneys are figuring out next steps.
AT&T telephone lines were also on the same poles, but were not implicated as a cause of the fire, according to the report.
Although PG&E and AT&T apparently did not break any laws, that’s not the same thing as saying they are off the hook for civil liabilities. There’s nothing to indicate that AT&T will be caught up in any of that, but PG&E likely will be. Even if PG&E followed the rules and was only partly to blame, the law governing utility poles and lines says that if a utility is involved in causing the fire, it has to pay for all damage. Even if others share the blame. A new law passed at the end of the legislative session in August allows electric companies to share the cost – which in PG&E’s case will run well into the billions of dollars – between its shareholders and customers, subject to the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission.